The Year of Less by Cait Flanders

You’ve probably seen a book like this before – promising to tell you the secret to escaping the cage of your material goods, into a brighter and more fulfilling life. How-to manuals on this subject are everywhere, but that’s not quite what’s happening in The Year of Less by Cait Flanders.

More than anything, The Year of Less is a really good story. Cait Flanders tells her own tale of how she navigated her way out of various addictions, including buying things to try and make herself feel better. Her journey began when she decided to undertake a shopping ban for one whole year: for 12 months she would only be allowed to buy consumables like groceries and toiletries and other essentials. Buying new clothes, housewares, books, etc. was all off the table. Each chapter focuses on a month, in which she tells the story of her most significant epiphany from that month, and how her journey was affected by that month’s circumstances. Any advice or “how-to” feel seems to happen by accident as the reader is drawn along, fascinated by Flanders’ story.

As a blogger, Flanders knows how to structure each short chapter and keep the reader’s attention with bite-size anecdotes that all build into a larger, more profound narrative. Bits of wisdom and insight are scattered throughout, and it was these that gave me a sense of wonder and clarity. Flanders knows, as she writes, that the specific advice of what to get rid of and how are less important than uncovering the emotions and habits that caused the clutter to build up in the first place. Good tidbits include: sometimes we buy things for the ideal person we’d like to be instead of the person we actually are; buying things is a way of insulating against pain, so instead we need to learn to feel things and keep on living; a shopping ban is a countercultural lifestyle and as such will face digs and doubt and peer pressure from those around you.

If you’re interested in memoirs, minimalism, mindfulness, organization, or things like intentional consumerism and the zero waste movement, this may be the book for you.

Invisible In-betweens: Gender Identity 201

Gender identity is a hot topic in politics and culture lately, and for good reason. More people than ever before are feeling comfortable expressing the true range of their gender identity, but that means a lot of new and unfamiliar concepts are coming into the mainstream. If you’re overwhelmed, worried, or confused about what it all means, that’s okay – we can help with that! Research has shown that reading books, especially fiction, about people different from you can help build your empathy and understanding for them. I’m a firm believer that if we could only understand each other better and have compassion for each other, the world would be a kinder place – so if you liked my previous recommendations (or if you missed them entirely) try one of these titles to build a better understanding of a complicated issue. My focus this time around is on the muddled, fluid, unclear in-between places where gender isn’t clear-cut.

  

For a comprehensive look at gender diversity, try They/Them/Their by Eris Young – available through interlibrary loan, it focuses mostly on gender diversity in the United Kingdom, but with applicable concepts for US audiences. What I especially like about this book is its careful discussion of various terms and their meanings, and its heavy use of first-person accounts describing real-life experiences. If you’re completely new to the world of gender diversity, this is a great place to start.

        

If you’d like a book that helps you get used to hearing gender-neutral pronouns, and focuses on adventures and everyday activities of gender-diverse people, try one of these great titles. The Love Study is a light-hearted romance between a man with a fear of commitment and a genderqueer YouTuber. Finna by Nino Cipri is a funny sci-fi take on working retail, featuring Ava, an anxious girl, and her recent ex, genderqueer Jules. Mask of Shadows is the dark and exciting fantasy adventure of Sal, a genderfluid thief who takes the opportunity to audition to be an assassin for the queen, only to find themself falling in love with scribe Elise. Spin With Me is a sweet story of the mutual crush that blossoms between Essie, the reluctant new girl in town, and Ollie, a non-binary classmate passionate about LGBTQ advocacy.

 

For a meaningful memoir, try Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and Identity by Corey Maison. I especially recommend Gender Queer if you’re not familiar with alternative pronouns: the author uses e/em/eir instead of he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs. These books are especially good for seeing life from a gender-diverse person’s perspective, because they detail the processes and emotions surrounding the authors’ quests to live authentically as themselves.

For a comics treatment, try Be Gay, Do Comics, edited by Matt Bors, and A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson. Be Gay, Do Comics is a massive anthology of comics describing the wide world of LGBTQ+ experience, including the spectrum of gender diversity and the struggle of pronouns. A Quick and Easy Guide is, well, exactly what it sounds like. If you’re confused by the singular they/them pronouns or aren’t really familiar with how it works, this is a good book to start with, not least because it includes perspectives from both inside and outside the non-binary gender experience. See also A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities by Mady G and J.R. Zuckerberg.

 

Finally, make it manga (Japanese graphic novels) with My Androgynous Boyfriend by Tamekou, The Bride Was A Boy by Chii, and Love Me for What I Am by Kata Konayama. These beautifully and/or adorably illustrated graphic novels tell the story of gender-diverse people as they fit into (or stand out of) everyday society. In My Androgynous Boyfriend, an average girl dates a boy skilled in the arts of makeup, nails, hair, and fashion – and they navigate the response of society to his unconventional self-expression. In The Bride Was A Boy, a transgender bride shares her journey through transition into love and matrimony, with cute humor along the way. Finally, Love Me for What I Am focuses on a non-binary teen finding community and acceptance working at an unusual café.

On Writing by Stephen King

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” 

While I have always been a fan of Stephen King, I had no idea he had written a memoir about the craft of writing itself until very recently. Published in 2000, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft delves into King’s thoughts and philosophies on writing and how his life experiences have contributed to his own craft.

King aptly titles the first half of this memoir “CV,” which details significant moments and experiences in his life that have shaped him into the writer he is today. While I was surprised at some of the traumatic experiences he recounted as both a child and young man, I was admittedly more surprised to read about how many rejection letters King received when he first started writing science fiction stories. It is mind-boggling to think that Stephen King, a staple name in the horror genre, experienced so much rejection when he first started out. Consequently, I was extremely inspired by his perseverance to continue writing, despite countless setbacks. For him, writing wasn’t (and isn’t) a job – he is truly passionate about the craft and it is a part of who he is.

In the second half of the memoir, titled “On Writing,” King reflects upon the craft of writing itself. He definitely isn’t afraid to say what he thinks (NOT a fan of adverbs or passive voice!), but gives much encouragement to the aspiring writers who read this book. I found it absolutely fascinating to see inside the mind of one of the most brilliant and prolific authors of our time – not only through the lens of an autobiography, but also through the lens of how and why he writes the way he does. One of the most engrossing sections of this book for me was when he described how he plans and details his plots… he doesn’t! He describes his process as starting with a “what if” question and, if the situation arising from that question is strong enough, he lets his characters lead him through the actual writing of the story. How amazing is that? Some examples he gives in the text include the following:

  • What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (‘Salem’s Lot)
  • What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)
  • What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo)

Overall, I found this memoir to be a captivating read and would highly recommend it for both aspiring writers and fans of King alike!

Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami

“Conditional citizens are people who know what it is like for a country to embrace you with one arm, and push you away with the other.” 

In the recently published title Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, Laila Lalami reflects upon what it means to be an American citizen as an Arab, Muslim woman who immigrated from Morocco after studying abroad in the United States. In this book, she designates individuals such as herself as “conditional citizens,” or those who are unable to participate and share in the traditional liberties and equalities promised upon becoming a citizen due to their race, nationality, religion, or gender.

In this collection of essays, Lalami explores her place in America by focusing on different spaces in which she experiences conditional citizenship, spanning from allegiance and faith to caste, inheritance, and assimilation. She considers how conditional citizens are all too often attributed a collective narrative based on race, gender, nationality, and religion, which can lead to demeaning stereotypes, dehumanizing rhetoric, and destructive notions of “the Other.” Lalami also elaborates upon how the very foundations of the United States are upheld by a caste system supporting white supremacy, in which white males are upheld at the top of the social order. All in all, this account asks the monumental questions of what it means to be an American and what it means to truly belong in the United States of America.

Overall, this deeply personal and moving narrative provides a vital perspective and addresses a variety of undeniably important topics in short, insightful essays. For me, this was not only an extremely enlightening read, but also a disheartening one as Lalami illuminates the hardships many people experience in the United States each and every day, despite being citizens. One of the most poignant experiences Lalami recounts is when a white woman asked her about the formation of ISIS at a book talk for her novel The Moor’s Account, which is a fictionalized memoir of the first black explorer in the United States. In other words, a work that has absolutely nothing to do with ISIS, but asked based on an ignorant, collective narrative drawn solely from her nationality and appearance. Unfortunately, these generalizations are by no means uncommon and can be extremely dangerous for so many people, which is why I especially recommend this title to everyone.

This title is also available in the following formats:

Overdrive eBook

Jenna Bush Hager August Book Picks

Jenna Bush Hager has selected TWO books for the August #ReadWithJenna book club. She has chosen Here For It by R. Eric Thomas and The Comeback by Ella Berman.

Here for it: or, how to save your soul in America by R. Eric Thomas is her nonfiction selection. This memoir is presented through a series of essays. Check out the following description provided by the publisher:

R. Eric Thomas didn’t know he was different until the world told him so. Everywhere he went–whether it was his rich, mostly white, suburban high school, his conservative black church, or his Ivy League college in a big city–he found himself on the outside looking in. In essays by turns hysterical and heartfelt, Eric redefines what it means to be an “other” through the lens of his own life experience. He explores the two worlds of his childhood: the barren urban landscape where his parents’ house was an anomalous bright spot, and the verdant school they sent him to in white suburbia. He writes about struggling to reconcile his Christian identity with his sexuality, about the exhaustion of code-switching in college, accidentally getting famous on the internet (for the wrong reason), and the surreal experience of covering the 2016 election as well as the seismic change that came thereafter. Ultimately, Eric seeks the answer to the ever more relevant question: Is the future worth it? Why do we bother when everything seems to be getting worse? As the world continues to shift in unpredictable ways, Eric finds the answers to these questions by re-envisioning what “normal” means, and in the powerful alchemy that occurs when you at last place yourself at the center of your own story.

The Comeback is her fiction selection. The following description, provided by the publisher, will give you an idea what the book is about.

A deep dive into the psyche of a young actress raised in the spotlight under the influence of a charming, manipulative film director and the moment when she decides his time for winning is over. At the height of her career and on the eve of her first Golden Globe nomination, teen star Grace Turner disappeared. Now, tentatively sober and surprisingly numb, Grace is back in Los Angeles after her year of self-imposed exile. She knows the new private life she wants isn’t going to be easy as she tries to be a better person and reconnect with the people she left behind. But when Grace is asked to present a lifetime achievement award to director Able Yorke–the man who controlled her every move for eight years–she realizes that she can’t run from the secret behind her spectacular crash and burn for much longer. And she’s the only one with nothing left to lose. Alternating between past and present, The Comeback tackles power dynamics and the uncertainty of young adulthood, the types of secrets that become part of our sense of self, and the moments when we learn that though there are many ways to get hurt, we can still choose to fight back.

Want to make sure that Jenna’s picks are automatically put on hold for you? Be sure to join our Best Sellers Club.

Reese Witherspoon JUNE Celebrity Book Club Picks

Every month Reese Witherspoon releases a new pick for the Reese Witherspoon x Hello Sunshine book club. June is an exception! She has announced TWO books for June and we are so excited to tell you about them.

If you want to make sure that you don’t miss any celebrity book club picks, join our Best Sellers Club and have those automatically put on hold for you.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley is her fiction pick for the month. This book is available in the following formats: OverDrive eAudiobook and OverDrive eBook.

Below is a description of this book provided by the publisher:

On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed. But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast. And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

Reese Witherspoon’s second book club pick for June is I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. This book is also available as an OverDrive eBook.

The following is a description provided by the publisher:

The author’s first encounter with a racialized America came at age seven, when her parents told her they named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man. She grew up in majority-white schools, organizations, and churches, and has spent her life navigating America’s racial divide as a writer, a speaker, and an expert helping organizations practice genuine inclusion. While so many institutions claim to value diversity in their mission statements, many fall short of matching actions to words. Brown highlights how white middle-class evangelicalism has participated in the rise of racial hostility, and encourages the reader to confront apathy and recognize God’s ongoing work in the world.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

This memoir is not one for the faint of heart. It deals with graphic descriptions of rape and sexual assault and can be triggering to readers. This book also talks about how rape is handled in universities and colleges, as well as how victims are treated within the criminal justice system, by the courts and police, and by the public who, not even knowing the victim’s name, still passed judgements on her actions. I highly recommend you give it a read (or a listen) and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller tells the story of Emily Doe. Emily became known to the world when her victim impact statement went viral during the sentencing stage of Brock Turner’s trial. Brock had just been sentenced to only six months in county jail after he was found by two bicyclists in the midst of sexually assaulting Emily on Stanford’s campus. Millions read her statement and it was translated into many different languages as the world finally heard from the woman at the center of the case.

After years of being known as Emily Doe, Chanel Miller decided it was time to take control of her story and her name.  She began writing Know My Name as a way to tell the story of her trauma and how she is working to rise above and change the world. Chanel thought that her case was perfect and there was no way her rapist would not be sentenced for a long time. Turner ran away from the crime, there were multiple eyewitnesses, and physical evidence was collected and immediately secured from both her body and the scene.

The aftermath of her rape and the resulting trial threw Chanel down a spiral of isolation and shame. When she realized the oppression and negativity that victims face all the way from the worst to the best cases, Chanel realized that these reactions only make victims coming forward less likely. Throughout this novel, Chanel discusses how this culture is set up to fail and let down victims, but protect the perpetrators. With her family, friends, and attorneys backing her up, Chanel works hard to find herself again and to work through the suffering and intense trauma that are omnipresent.

The Davenport Public Library owns a copy of this book as an audiobook available through OverDrive or through our Libby App. I listened to this book and encourage you readers to seek out an audiobook version as Chanel is the narrator. Hearing her break down while reading certain parts of this book brought me back to when this story was all over the news and shed new light onto what Chanel was actually going through.


This book is also available in the following format:

Ink In Water: An Illustrated Memoir (Or, How I Kicked Anorexia’s Ass and Embraced Body Positivity)

Anyone who has struggled with addiction or compulsion will likely  appreciate Ink In Water and find it inspiring. Davis, described as a “young punk artist” by Library Journal, tells an autobiographical story about incredibly painful life experiences revolving around disordered eating, recovery, loss, and finally–helping others overcome similar disorders. Now a personal trainer, coach, author, and “body image advocate”, Davis’s memoir reveals how she first developed an eating disorder and got ensnared in the negative feedback loop that accompanies the psychology of self-harm.

The illustrations depicting Davis at the height (or really, rock-bottom) of her disorder show an emaciated, isolated individual who was starving herself to death. But by the end of the memoir, illustrations show a woman who has learned to cut herself some slack. In contrast, the woman in the final pages of the memoir is strong, determined, and no longer fears taking up space. To the contrary, Davis is interested in building herself up, through the practice of weight-lifting and strength training. Rather than shrinking and trying to make herself smaller, she embarks on a lifelong journey of recovery by focusing her mental and physical energy on becoming stronger.

While this graphic novel is largely about learning to love yourself, it also did a wonderful job of showing what a loving, supportive relationship can look like. I got a little teary when reading about how Davis’s partner essentially doubled-down on being loving and supportive through the hard times (rather than turning away from her when she was at her worst). When Davis experiences a particularly devastating loss of one of her best friends, mentors, and sponsors, her partner plans a trip to New York City to help her get out of her head.  Their relationship beautifully demonstrates how loving partnerships allow for being openly vulnerable and loved and supported in spite of individual faults or shortcomings.

Check it out. I didn’t really even start regularly reading graphic novels until I picked up a work of graphic medicine. As someone who genuinely enjoys non-fiction (I know — crazy!), graphic memoirs have been a really nice change of pace. This book reminds me of how resilient we are, and that we can get better and come back even stronger after being in the grips of something that threatens to destroy us.

Flat Broke with Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha

Guest post by Laura

This book title, Flat Broke with Two Goats, is one of the catchiest I’ve seen in a while. In this memoir, MaGaha finds herself in foreclosure due to self-admitted willful ignorance of the family finances, which her accountant husband oversaw. My favorite part of the book was the author’s move to Macomb, Illinois to teach at “the University”. I had visited a college friend at Western Illinois University in Macomb decades ago, and more recently spent the day there attending a business meeting for a different job so I was a bit familiar with the place. This section of the book was a bit like a mild version of Eat Pray Love, only with cornfields, a boxcar, and sweltering Midwest heat.

At times I found the author annoying in her unwillingness to take responsibility for her actions and for not thoroughly researching the care and feeding of her animals. I also would have found the cabin less disappointing and more potentially exciting. All of those acres of natural timber and a beautiful waterfall view? Sign me up! Sure, the house was a dump and there were poisonous snakes and wolf spiders, but the couple made the house hospitable with some improvements. As for the critters, I admit I would be treading carefully and somewhat anxiously because of the snakes, but I already deal with wolf spiders in my neck of the woods.

The couple went on to raise chickens and goats and slowly transformed from people who lived beyond their means into rural farm people living a simpler life. I liked how she found making yogurt and soap fulfilling. She realized she’s gone back to some of the practices of her ancestors on these same lands, minus the constant backbreaking work and potential to go hungry with a crop failure. I give MaGaha props for bravery in being brutally honest about her life, which must have been difficult. She’s an accomplished freelancer but in looking at her website it appears this was her first published book. I think she will continue to find maturity in her novel-writing voice with subsequent books.

audio version available through Overdrive

Brave by Rose McGowan

Brave  by Rose McGowan, is not a “tell-all” but instead a “tell-it-like-it-is” memoir of growing up in a cult in Italy, moving to the United States, living life as a runaway, eventually becoming a Hollywood starlet, and then leaving it all behind to pursue art and activism. At times, I felt like an eavesdropper who was listening to things she probably shouldn’t be listening to; but I definitely confirmed my suspicion: that sexual assault victims will often be shamed for coming forward with accusations, especially about powerful or influential people. I think I’ve always known that victims risk public shaming and humiliation for choosing to speak out; but if you read the comment section on any of the videos or press releases that discuss Brave, you’ll see how cruel and dismissive people are behind the veil of the internet. McGowan discusses the cruelty of humanity and makes a special point to discuss how hurt she was to read such corrosive comments about herself online. Breaking the culture of silence and speaking openly and honestly about society’s elephants in the room (addiction, abuse, and mental illness come to mind) is truly heroic.

Maybe it’s not a totally shock that the Hollywood entertainment industry is exploitative at its core, but the kind of depravity and darkness that live there is probably unfathomable for outsiders. As consumers,  we need to be especially aware that what we consume – and what often appears glamorous, seductive, or exciting oftentimes conceals a dark underbelly of  disillusionment. For example, if you’ve ever seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Planet Terror”, you might not be aware that some of the movie plot bears an uncanny resemblance to some of McGowan’s personal life, and that she was made to perform feats of athleticism that would be unattainable for most women in tip-top physical condition. A more disturbing insight is that the cinema that we pay for and consume employs rape in order to tell a story, which is part and parcel of how violence, largely against women, becomes normalized. Oh, it’s just a tv show, or a movie, we say: but the unspoken truth is that it reflects social and cultural attitudes about the roles of men and women, largely that some men take what they want from women through “power” and domination. One of McGowan’s most incisive and profound questions: why are we still using rape as a method of storytelling in cinema at all?

As many people know, McGowan was one of the first women to come forward among more than 90 other women and accuse Harvey Weinstein of  rape. When she recounts her experience, she describes “depersonalization”, which occurs when you feel like you’re a stranger in your own body, viewing your life as though from the sidelines as an observer.  McGowan refers to the notoriously fallen movie “mogul” as “The Monster,” and her refusal to write or say his name, all the while spelling out other contextual details of her story, was her deliberate attempt at dethroning him. It is apparent from the tone of her voice and her unease when being interviewed on this subject that having to recall that day makes her physically ill.

McGowan has of course also been accused of being an “attention seeker” which is, in my opinion, a nasty and trite way of trying to shame her. Critics of McGowan fault her on the one hand for “telling it like it is” but in the same sentence shame for taking “hush money” and not calling Weinstein out immediately.  “Why did you wait until now to speak out?” they’ll taunt her. “You took the money,” they’ll say, without regard to any nuance or respect for her unique situation, as though the harrowing and psychologically damaging act of rape could possibly be boiled down into a black and white scenario that critics of McGowan would themselves navigate perfectly. McGowan poignantly makes her point when she says: “The only perfect rape victim is a dead rape victim and that’s a fact and it’s sad.” The simple act of speaking  is apparently so risky that it can earn you a scarlet letter; but McGowan won’t be deterred. As she says, she’s been called every awful name in the book, and worse. And still, she has the nerve and the conviction to keep her head up . I also try to keep in  mind that celebrity thrusts individuals into the line of fire and under the scope of public scrutiny.

I personally found McGowan’s candid commentary refreshing because she offers a no-holds-barred approach to honesty. In my estimation, it clearly sounds that she has spent many years thinking through these issues and can articulate herself masterfully. Brave is written by a woman who has accepted the past and wants to use her platform of celebrity to  help others, especially women, to recognize their value and to speak out when a predator is approaching.